Friday 2 December 2016

Jim Glennon: End of one era and the start of a new dawn

Jim Glennon

Published 06/11/2016 | 11:00

Ireland's CJ Stander center is tackled by New Zealand's Malakai Fekitoa, in Chicago. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski
Ireland's CJ Stander center is tackled by New Zealand's Malakai Fekitoa, in Chicago. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski

What a year it has been: Leicester City, Connacht, Chicago Cubs and now . . . Ireland. A wonderful, wonderful achievement in Chicago last night and one huge monkey off the back of Irish rugby. The repositioning of Irish rugby that has been ongoing since the turn of the century was completed on the one hand, and an entirely new vista has opened up on the other.

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The breakthrough of the provinces in European competition, spearheaded by Ulster's win in 1999, nailed down by Munster's successes over a sustained period which, in turn, led into Leinster's three titles and closed off nicely by Connacht's league win last season. The national team's Triple Crown and Six Nations successes, including a Grand Slam, with wins over all the major rugby nations from both hemispheres. And finally, the book can be closed, the All Blacks' scalp is in the bag.

No more than the single swallow that does not a summer make, a win over New Zealand, momentous as it is, doesn't mean that the established order of world rugby has been turned on its head - it does, however, represent for Ireland the successful conquering of that last unclimbed peak. The mystique of New Zealand has been banished for ever more for every Irish rugby player who will have the honour of facing the haka in the future.

Fiona Coghlan and her ladies did it a couple of years ago in their World Cup, as did James Ryan's under 20s a few months ago - the aura of the silver fern is no more for them and now it's an identical situation for Irish rugby's standard-bearers.

It would be incorrect, and indeed unfair, to treat this win as a mere flash-in-the-pan - it has been coming for a while, and was always going to happen, sometime.

Just as the warriors on Soldier Field delivered last night, it has to be said, too, that the IRFU's management of the progress of all the teams under their aegis has been remarkably successful.

The curve has consistently been an upward one, notwithstanding the odd blip. That management has been primarily manifest in their choice of coaches across all their teams and, while he is by no means alone, Joe Schmidt has shown himself to be one of the best exponents of his trade, if not the very best, globally.

Regardless of how authoritative we commentators wish to appear, first-hand knowledge of what's going on within any group is as rare as, well, Irish wins over New Zealand.

Only those who have worked with him, and under him, can fully attest to the capabilities of any coach, and in Schmidt's case the near-universal approval of all who have been within the group is indeed striking. The smiling public face, by all accounts, is just that - a public face. Smiles alone will win nothing in any aspect of life - ruthless efficiency is required, and the higher the level, the more ruthless the efficiency. He delivers in spades.

And where from here? An obvious question, and a very obvious answer too - New Zealand again, this time in Dublin in a fortnight's time, followed by Australia the following week, and then the 2017 Six Nations, with England and France at home in the spring.

A line can indeed be drawn under the opening phase of professionalism in Irish rugby, and an entirely new and wonderful vista has been opened, starting with the return game in two week's time against the All Blacks - bring them on!

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